The Finals (May 1, 2000)
Monday is an odd day for a major sporting event, but it happened to be a Japanese national holiday. “Tonight,” the event program announced, “the strongest man in the world shows up!”
Because of a lackluster first round and the absence of Takada -- who had intended to face Ken Shamrock in Shamrock’s comeback bout before suffering an injury -- 38,429 people entered the Tokyo Dome to see the resolution, a sharp decline in attendance. A Toyota logo decorated the ring center; American audiences would see a condensed version weeks later on DirecTV for $19.95.
In the opening bout, Vovchanchyn knocked out Goodridge without issue -- save for Goodridge lacerating his scrotum on the edge of a fractured athletic cup; while it held main event status, the fight between Sakuraba and Gracie was scheduled second on the card because of the tournament format. Musician Eric Clapton was on hand to deliver flowers to the fighters; Sakuraba entered wearing the mask of a famous pro wrestler, accompanied by two doppelgangers; when he revealed himself, his hair was dyed bright orange.
Rorion Gracie: For me, it takes away from the seriousness of the event. It’s a clownish approach to the whole thing.
Royce Gracie: Everyone has a different way to concentrate and settle themselves down. If it calms you down coming to the catwalk rapping, hey, go for it. Knock yourself out. I don’t care.
Sakuraba: The first round, Royce stuck to my back like an octopus tentacle. I moved the fight to my corner. My head is outside the ropes. This isn't my move to run away from him; it's to counterbalance the pressure of him hanging on me.
Quadros: Sakuraba, in the first round, he let Royce take his back standing up. His head is through the ropes and out of the ring right in Royce’s corner. His face is maybe literally three feet away from Royce’s cornermen. And he’s sitting there with a look on his face like he’s at the park feeding the birds or something.
Sakuraba: At one point, I wasn't doing anything special, but the crowd burst out in cheers and laughs. I didn't know, but they had a close-up of me smiling. Off to the side, my friend Ueda was operating the camera. When I recognized Ueda, I looked at him and sort of greeted him, and this went from his camera to the big screen.
Rorion Gracie: The issue for me is that Sakuraba was holding onto the ropes. That’s the kind of stuff I would hope the referee would prevent from happening.
Burke: The referee doesn’t open his mouth. There’s a scenario where Royce is going for something and his elbow touches the rope and the referee slaps him and gives him a warning.
Sakuraba: I had a kneebar locked up on him. I know I must've thought, if only for a split second, "I've got it." I could see a sense of urgency on Royce's face. Then Royce's foot in my butt.
Royce Gracie: I pulled it out right away. He was hanging on and it looked like he had it, so the crowd was like, “Wow.” It was a show for the judges, except there weren’t any judges. Heh, heh, heh.
With one competitive round over, Gracie’s chances against a contemporary fighter didn’t look as dour as his critics had figured. But as the fight continued, it became more apparent that Sakuraba was using Gracie’s pressure-cooker strategy against him.
Sakuraba: We had two-minute breaks. I was quite tired from just one round, but with two minutes, I could recover fairly well.
Rorion Gracie: Sakuraba was more prepared than Royce expected, number one. He played defense for a long time. For him, going on a long run was the right thing to do. It was a smart strategy -- not trying to beat Royce, but trying to stay alive.
Royce Gracie: After the third, I remember sitting down and saying, “Son of a gun, this guy has endurance.” Forget about the next fight, we’re gonna finish this one. Let’s see who can go further.
Burke: I think Sakuraba’s game plan was to frustrate and annoy Royce, get under his skin, take it longer. Royce started getting frustrated. Then he started to inflict some damage on Royce and used Royce’s Gi well against him.
Sakuraba: The Gi isn't that great a thing. It also helps me with its ability to stop things from slipping. And I can get better control of him by grabbing it. I figured I could blind him with it and start hitting him. According to the rules, as long as I don't take it off and choke him with it, it's okay.
Quadros: Sakuraba, to me, is akin to Buster Keaton or Benny Hill or some of the other great physical comedians in that he can do things in a fight that are really, really entertaining.
Sakuraba: I hit Royce's leg with really good low kicks in the third. It made him come in, but it was in a kind of desperate anger, so the timing was really easy to read. I think his knee started to accumulate damage from around then.
Royce Gracie: I always told everybody, I’m not punch proof. One punch can knock me out. I never said I was Superman. I never put that kind of pressure on me. If other people look at me that way, it’s not my problem.
Sakuraba: The fifth round, Royce beckoned me to the ground, I say why not, as he's tired. It's my first time feeling him on the ground. He has long shins. He wraps around my back and easily closes his legs. It's a pain to fight someone with such long legs, making a strategy is next to impossible.
Quadros: At the time, 2000, they weren’t using digital. They were using film. The photographer, Susumu Nagao, had a situation where he ran out of film halfway through the fight. He had to send some guy to the store to get more film to bring back to him.
Sakuraba: I heard people on the Internet saying that I tapped. Royce whispered in my ear, "Sorry" because his knee hit my cup. I tapped his butt while saying "OK, OK" to accept his apology. I wasn't giving up.
Burke: He tapped. He got caught in a guillotine early. He tapped. It was clear. Sakuraba kept fighting. If you rewatch the fight, he tapped to a guillotine. Bottom line.
Royce Gracie: I don’t remember kneeing him in the groin. I did not see him tap. I didn’t feel him tap. I can’t say he tapped. I never said he did.
Sakuraba: Maybe because he's feeling pain in his leg, he appears to be disliking the standup fighting. He butt-flops. Maybe he can't stand anymore. In my corner, Hidehiko Yoshida is yelling, "Fly! Fly!" So I jumped, as if jumping into a pool, to punch him in the face. Then the bell rang, ending the sixth round. Then the towel was thrown in.
Rorian Gracie throws in the towel: Susumu Nagao/en.susumug.com
Rorion: I made the decision. I talked to the old man, of course. He thought it was the right thing to do.
Royce Gracie: After the sixth round, I told my father and brother, “I can get up but I can’t walk.” I had a partial tear on the tendon and a crack on the shin. If they had told me to get up and fight, I would have.
Burke: I carried him out of the ring. I have newspapers with the two of us on the cover.
For the first time in modern mixed martial arts, a Gracie had given up -- but only after 90 minutes of fighting. With each round 15 minutes, the two had essentially fought six regulation-period fights in a row.
Quadros: The way the crowd erupted after that -- it was like the crowd had been lulled into this state, and then all of a sudden it woke up and realized, “Hey, Sakuraba won!” I looked around and saw people way, way up in the nosebleed seats standing up holding their fist in the air and going crazy. That was probably the most dramatic ovation I’ve ever heard in my entire career.
Hume: It was very emotional. When they finally decided to throw the towel in, it was huge for Japan. The Gracies are legends. It was a huge thing for Japan and for Sakuraba to have their equality and legitimacy for what we now call mixed martial artists.
Miletich: More than anything to me, it gave me a lot more respect for Royce. He went out there and fought a guy who was legitimately one of the best, most well-rounded fighters in the world at the time. I remember walking up to him the next morning and shaking his hand and saying, “I just want to let you know that all the fighters, including myself, have a lot of respect for what you did last night.”
Sakuraba: Usually after a fight I celebrate with a beer, but with this Grand Prix, I have to fight again because I won. To win the tournament, there are still two more fights. If you think about it, winning is worse than losing.